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Monday, October 2, 2017

When New Birth Feels Like Death

My friend, Rev. Christine Jerrett says, “When you’re giving birth, there comes a moment when you think you’re going to die.”

I must confess, I have no personal experience of this, but it rings true. The birth pains of something new can feel like death.

This has been born out many times in the history of God’s people. When God begins to do something new, at first it feels like the end. And it is – the end of the old, the arrival of the new. A few examples:

587 B.C.
The Crisis: The Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem, carries the leaders into exile, and reduces the temple on Mount Zion to rubble.  
Destruction of Temple 587 BC
The Reaction: People asked: “Where is God? Why did God not protect us? How can we possibly survive without the temple where we can make our sacrifices? We’re finished.”
The New Birth: The exiles turn to the sacred story and begin to create what we know as Scripture which, unlike a temple, is portable. Jewish communities centred on Scripture and religious practices spring up and flourish from Persia to Spain.  

A.D. 40 
The Crisis: Some Jews believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Gentiles – non-Jews – are beginning to come to faith in Jesus and experiencing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  
The Reaction: People asked, “How can Gentiles be included in the church if they do not keep the laws of given by God to Moses? Without traditions like circumcision and abstaining from unclean food, we can’t survive.”
The New Birth: Inspired leaders like Peter and Paul realize that salvation is a free gift. Grace and faith, not adherence to religious regulations, bring us into a relationship with God. As a result, Christianity spreads rapidly throughout the Roman Empire.

1517
The Crisis: An Augustinian monk and professor named Martin Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther challenges the authority of the papacy and attacks the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
Martin Luther
The Reaction: People ask, “How can the church survive if we don’t have a central teaching authority to tell us what’s right? If ordinary people start to read the Bible for themselves, it will be chaos!
The New Birth: With newly printed Bibles in their hands and passionate preachers in their pulpits, people discover that each individual can have a saving relationship with God by faith alone. Protestant churches flourish – and, the Roman Catholic Church also experiences reformation and a spiritual renaissance.

1859 
The Crisis:  Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, outlining the theory of evolution. Darwin’s work directly challenges the biblical account of creation.
The Reaction: People are horrified. They ask, “How can Christianity survive if the truth of the Bible is questioned? If the Bible is ‘wrong’ about the age of the earth, how can we trust it on other matters? The whole edifice of Christian belief will collapse.”
The New Birth: Christians begin to re-examine their faith in the light of new scientific knowledge. They discover fresh ways of reading the Bible and understanding the Gospel. They realize that Scripture and science are not necessarily in conflict.

1992 
The Crisis: The law banning businesses from opening on Sundays in Ontario is struck down. Sunday morning is transformed from a quiet day of rest and worship to prime time for shopping and sports. Almost overnight, young families start to disappear from churches.
Reaction:  People are perplexed. They ask, “How can our churches survive if we have to compete with the shopping mall and the arena? How can we possibly attract enough people to pay for our big buildings and full-time ministers and programs and activities?”
The New Birth: Churches experience a wake-up call. They begin to realize they need to do more than open the doors on Sunday morning if they want to attract people. They start to ask what their mission is in a culture where church is no longer at the centre.

2017
The Crisis:  Sunday participation has continued to decline. Most churches are older and smaller.
Reaction:  Some churches are wondering if the end is near. They are asking if they can survive without their buildings, paid ministers and a new generation of younger people.
The New Birth:  To be determined….

We are in a place that God’s people have been many times before. Feeling like the end is near. Wondering how we can hold on to what we once had. Fearful of the future.


The lesson of the past, though, is that new birth feels like death. Where is that new birth in the midst of upheaval and decline today? Whether we can discern the new thing God is doing and reimagine what it means to be the church will be critical in shaping out future.  

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Bottom Half of the Hourglass

I first became aware that time is a finite resource when I was 11. My father had open heart surgery. It was 1965. Heart bypass surgery was in its infancy, still little more than a medical experiment. My dad had this risky surgery because his doctor said that without it, he would die. He spent the whole summer in the Toronto General Hospital, and, although he lived a good life, he was never really well.

For the first time that summer, it dawned on me that my dad would not be here forever. I remember thinking, “Maybe if everything goes well, he’ll live for another 20 years” – which, when you’re 11 seems like forever. But time continued to flow on inexorably, and that anticipated time became shorter.

In fact, my father lived for over 30 years, which makes his surgery an unqualified success. 

But for us mortal creatures, time marches on. Time moves in one direction. Every day behind us is a day less in front of us.

The hourglass is a visual image of this reality. The sands of time run continuously until the top half of the hourglass is empty.


But what if we looked at things differently? A while ago I decided to start focusing on the top half less and the bottom half more. The top of the hourglass the remaining time available to me. The bottom half is time that is past, yes. But it’s also the accumulated experiences and events that time past represents.

When I was 18, most of my life lay ahead of me. There was way more sand in the top half of my hourglass than the bottom. But I had not yet finished university, met my wife, started ministry. My four children were not even a gleam in my eye. I had not yet met most of the people or read most of the books or listened to most of the music that have shaped my life. I knew almost nothing compared to what I know now. Today I realize that most of my years are behind me, But because of all that has happened in those years, my life is immeasurably richer than it was when I was young.

I know it is a very great blessing to be able to say that, a blessing that not everyone can share. But even if the bottom half of your hourglass contains pain and sorrow and disappointment, it is still your life, a life which is valued and cherished by God.

What’s true of us as individuals is true of our churches. The sands of time are running out on many of our churches – or at least it seems that way. We have long been hoping that, somehow, we could find a way to turn the hourglass over and start afresh. But sadly, it hasn’t happened for many of our congregations, or for the United Church as a whole.

Recently, I was gently taken to task for saying that a church was “failing.” What I meant was that it would likely have to close. It was pointed out to me that “failing” is not the right word. Even if a church is reaching the end of its life cycle, it doesn’t mean it has “failed.” All the impact, influence and blessing that have flowed out of that community over the years is still very real. Countless people are who they are today because of that church. The top half might be diminishing, but the bottom half is full to overflowing.

Maybe the hourglass is not the only, or even the best, image for the lives of us as individuals, or our churches. The past does not sit trapped and inert, but continues to live and move like the radiating ripples of a pond. The flow of our lives is so much not like the sand running out of the hourglass, but like a stream, originating in its source and flowing to its end point.


The great devotional writer Oswald Chambers wrote “A river reaches places that its source never knows.” What Chambers meant is that we never get to see most of the impact of what we have say and do. Most of it is hidden from us, known only to God.

We continue to hope and pray that the faith that has sustained us will be passed on to a next generation. And we need to do what we can to make that happen.


But we also need to pray and believe that God is continues to use what we have said and done to bless the world in ways that we can neither see nor even imagine.  

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Walking on Water

The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy tells the story of three monks who lived on a remote
Leo Tolstoy
island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived, he was shocked to discover that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. So he spent all his time on the island teaching them the “Our Father” and then departed, satisfied that he had done a good piece of pastoral work.

But when his ship was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water – in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop, overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!'” The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your land and be at peace.”

(I got this story from an article by Trevor Miller entitled “Pray as You Can, Not As You Can’t” on the website of the Northumbria Community. https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/articles/pray-can-cant/ )

Throughout my ministry, I’ve met a lot of people who are like those monks. They don’t know many of the prayers, Scripture passages or hymns that at one time people were expected to know.

And it makes them feel really inadequate. “Don’t ask me to pray, I don’t know how.” “I’m so biblically illiterate, I don’t know anything.” “You’re the expert, not me.”

On the other hand, I’ve often been astonished that some of these people can “walk on water” – not literally, but in the sense of demonstrating unexpected wisdom, maturity, imagination, character and understanding. People whose relationship with God is vibrant and alive, and who live out their faith in remarkable ways.

Trevor Miller writes that what matters in prayer is “the state of the heart before God rather than the techniques used.”
   
If my work over the last three years has shown me anything, it is that the church is not dead, but that the church is alive in all sorts of surprising and unexpected ways. Our congregations and the people in them often have a lot more going for them than even they realize.

But sometimes they’re like those monks on that island. Their spirituality is heart-felt. It’s intuitive. It’s instinctive. But it’s unformed and unfocused. It would benefit from being shaped by practices and habits and traditions that have been passed down to us. So the bishop was right in going to extraordinary lengths to teach these three monks the “Our Father.”

We’re prone to think that form kills feeling, that everyone should make up their spirituality as they go along. But spiritual depth only comes when we allow ourselves to be fed by the deep wells of wisdom and experience of those who have gone before.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t dismiss the feeling because it’s lacking the form, or because it’s expressed in a form we don’t think is correct. In the end, it is the state of our hearts before God, and not being able to put it into sufficiently “churchy” language that counts. And make no mistake, every generation has its own “churchy” language. Just because we’re inclusive in our language and don’t use “thee” and “thou” doesn’t mean that our language automatically connects the heart to God.

We’re always wondering what people outside the church, especially young people, are “looking for.” “What do they want?” we ask. Studies show that what young people respond to most is authenticity. It doesn’t even matter so much if the language is hip as if they can tell that it’s authentic. If they perceive it as empty show, or as somebody’s attempt to dictate what is “correct,” they’ll smell it a mile away. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that we know what authenticity means to them unless we’ve taken the time to listen to them.

That’s why the people who can “walk on water” are so important. They are the ones who can often communicate authenticity to the seeker, the visitor, the stranger. They’re easy to miss. Sometimes they are the quietest, most unassuming people around. Because they don’t know the inside language and habits, they might be on the margins of the church.


But they are a tremendous gift. And almost every church I know of has at least one or two of them, who like those unindoctrinated monks can “walk on water.” If we notice them, and learn to value their presence among us, we too will be “awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity.”  

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Four Spaces of Belonging

We all have a need to belong. But we don’t all experience belonging in the same way.


I knew a woman who couldn’t understand why people didn’t stay for coffee hour after church. She felt that church wasn’t complete without the coffee and conversation that occurred after the service. “Don’t they know they would feel more a part of the church if they came for coffee?” she would ask.

I knew a man who couldn’t understand why more people weren’t interested in belonging to a small group. “Church,” he said, “should be a place where people can share their deepest selves with one another. Don’t they know what they are missing?”

Both Mrs. Coffee Hour and Mr. Small Group didn’t understand that people experience belonging in different ways.

Joseph Myers, in his book The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups, says that there are four different “spaces of belonging” – Public, Social,
Personal and Intimate.

Public Space is “where we connect through outside an influence,” for example, at a concert, sporting event or political rally. My wife and I went to see “The Blue Man Show” in Chicago a few years ago. Even though we didn’t know a single other person by name, we had an intense feeling of belonging to the group participating in that delightful event.

Social Space is where we share “snap-shots” of ourselves and form “first impressions” of one another. Social space is where “neighbour” relationships are formed.

Personal Space is where we experience belonging among “close friends” – people with whom we feel comfortable sharing personal things about ourselves – but not everything.

That level of belonging is reserved for Intimate Space. This space is best described by the expression “naked but unashamed.” It is the space where can share our deepest selves. Most people only ever have handful of truly intimate relationships.

Myers argues that we can experience genuine belonging in all four of these spaces. It’s a mistake to think that the goal of belonging is always intimacy, and that to social or public belonging is invalid. They are four different experiences.

The challenge for churches is not to limit genuine belonging to social events or small groups, but to provide opportunities to belong in all four spaces.

Public Belonging
The main public event in most churches is Sunday worship. People should feel connected –
both to God and to those around them – whether they know anyone else in the congregation or not. This means that worship should be planned and led with care and commitment. People aren’t looking for polished perfection, but they are looking for a message that speaks to them.

It’s essential that churches do the very best with what they have. This means not trying to be something other than what they are, by, for example, building worship around classical choral music when they no longer have the musicians to do it well.

It also means removing barriers to participation, including cryptic “insider” language, messages that reflect the minister’s latest hobby horse, confusing orders of service, or making people guess where the washrooms are.

Think: If I was visiting this church for the first time, what would it feel like?

Social Belonging
Social belonging is often dismissed as superficial. It may carry the negative connotation of “mere socializing.” But social space is perhaps the most critical space because it is there that people will decide whether they want to get to know you better.

Social space is where first impressions are formed. Visitors will often decide within minutes whether this is the church for them.

The message to be communicated in social space is “We really are glad you’re here.” It should come with no strings attached, so that people do not feel like you are only interested in what they might do for you.

Personal Belonging
The church should be a safe place where people can form close relationships. This requires both openness and receptivity, but also respect for healthy boundaries.

To experience personal belonging, people need to trust that they can ask questions without being dismissed, express opinions without being judged, contribute without being shut down, and risk opening themselves without being the subjects of gossip or backbiting.

Intimate Belonging 
I think intimacy in churches is somewhat overrated. It’s not reasonable to expect that most people will look for true intimacy in the church.

Intimacy comes with risks, and so it needs to be handled with care. People who seek intimacy in the church may be broken or vulnerable, or they may crave intimacy in unhealthy ways.

The church’s best role may be to support and care for people so they can sustain healthy intimacy in other areas of their lives -- their marriages, families and friendships.


All four kinds of belonging are authentic and valid. Churches should strive to provide opportunities to experience belonging in all four spaces. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nine Ways to Reimagine Your Church's Ministry

Many churches are finding it harder and harder to sustain full time paid ministry. The most common response is to reduce ministry hours, or look for a cheaper alternative – student supply, for example, or only calling ministers in salary Category A or B.


These responses often end up being short term gain for long term pain. They take the pressure off the budget now, but usually contribute to the long-term process of decline. Fewer hours means less ministry. And it becomes harder to attract ministers who need to make a living.

When we’re faced with an urgent situation, we look for a quick fix. But there is no quick fix. The warning signs of decline have been with us for thirty years. It didn’t happen overnight. It won’t be fixed overnight.

Preparing for the future is more about transforming deeply entrenched attitudes and habits than it is about finding some magic button we can press. That change in attitude can only happen with patience and persistence over time – which is hard to do when anxiety about the future is high. But it’s what is called for.

Here are nine ways that even the smallest congregation can reimagine and refocus its ministry.

Start with Why
“Why are we here? What is our purpose?” These are the basic questions every church should ask.
   
These are deep questions of identity and mission. They can’t be answered with nice-sounding generalities (“We seek to be an inclusive community, welcoming to all”) but with clear specifics. What exactly are we here for? What difference does it make that we are here?
   
Management guru Peter Drucker says that the purpose of a church is to produce “transformed individuals.” Whose lives will be changed and in what way because of the church? That’s what churches need to wrestle with honestly, imaginatively, courageously and prayerfully.

God gives the church its purpose -- to carry on Christ’s work through the power of the Spirit. But each community needs to work out for itself what it means in practical terms to be faithful to that purpose. We need to create as many opportunities as we can think of to talk about this question. It’s number one because it’s the most important.  

Look at Assets First

Assets are all the things we have that make ministry possible. They include buildings and money, but they also include less tangible things like the abilities of our members, accumulated wisdom and experience, connections to the community, the faith we have inherited and the presence of the Spirit.

Even the smallest community has a wealth of assets, many of which they may not recognize. When we are struggling, it’s easy to see only deficits – what we don’t have rather than what we do have. The church begins to regard itself a problem to be solved. And because it sees only what is lacking, it looks outside for an “expert” solution, which makes it feel even more inadequate.

Focusing on assets can open our eyes to the potential of the community to creatively address its challenges.  While outside knowledge and experience is valuable, the answer is found first of all “in here” – in the assets and capacities already present in the community.

Be realistic about your deficits. But start with your assets.

Gather in order to Scatter

We’re conditioned to think that “church” happens when people come into the building, for worship, meetings or activities. Therefore, we see our main job as bringing more people in. It’s important to bring people in, but in our time, the impact of the church will felt be less through the programs and activities within the church, and more when people are equipped to live out their faith in their daily lives – in their families, workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. We need to see the church as the place where we gather in order to be equipped to scatter into God’s world.

Distinguish Means from Ends

A church’s “end” is its mission or purpose (not to be confused with a “mission statement.”) One way to discern our ends is to answer three questions suggested by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann:

Who are we?
What is God calling us to do?
Who is our neighbor?

The church’s means are all the ways it puts the answers to these questions into practice, which includes money, buildings and staff.

It’s common in churches to talk about a means – a balanced budget, a beloved building, a longstanding program – as if it were an end in itself. We need to be sure we are putting our means at the service of our ends – and be willing to find other means if the ones we have aren’t doing the job.  

Rethink Why you need a Minister
Churches often think of ministry as a list of tasks -- preaching, visiting, going to meetings.
Many churches with part time ministers expect the minister to show up for worship every Sunday. Since most people’s primary experience of church is Sunday morning, this shields the congregation from the full consequences of part time ministry because there is no time left for mission or outreach.  

Maybe having your part time minister spend most of his or her time preparing for a one hour Sunday service is not the best use of their time. Maybe there are other, more important things your minister should be doing. Start with your “Why?” and ask how the paid staff you have can best serve that end.

(An interesting example is Cariboo Presbyterian Church in British Columbia. This church is a network of house churches in small, scattered communities. The paid ministry staff train and equip local people to lead worship, prayer and pastoral care in each house church. See
www.cariboopresbyterianchurch.bc.ca )

Commit to Collaborate Upfront

Cooperating with other churches sounds like a good idea. But if you wait till you’re looking for a new minister, it’s too late. Your immediate needs of the moment may not line up with those of neighboring churches.  

The commitment to a cooperative vision should be made now so that you can respond to future ministry needs out of that commitment rather than trying to patch together an arrangement on short notice.

And – your potential cooperative partners may not be United Churches!

Think Bi-Vocational

Part-time ministry may save the congregation money, but it doesn’t provide the minister with a living income. Congregations need to be proactive and innovative in thinking about what other sources of income could be available to potential candidates. This might mean seeking a minister who has marketable skills in an area where there is need within the community and making that part of the search process. We can no longer assume that full time ministry is the norm, but it should not be entirely up to ministers to bear the burden of that reality.

Your Church is not Your Building

The largest churches in the New Testament had around fifty people. That’s how many would fit in someone’s house. And the vast majority of churches in the world today have fewer than fifty members. The problem is not that our congregations are too small to be effective. It’s that many of them are struggling to maintain aging and costly buildings.

Ask what the life and ministry of your church could look like apart from the building in which it is currently housed. This is hard, because we’re so used to thinking of the church as a building. Closing the building usually means closing the church.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine how your church could still be a vibrant Christian community if you didn’t have your building.

Pray
Adapting to change is a spiritual, not just an organizational challenge. Change is a journey of the heart. Find ways to invite as many people in your church as possible into that journey. Discover ways for them to participate in the long-term spiritual discerning of your congregation. And trust that God is not finished with the church.

Rev. Paul Miller
pmiller@watpres.ca
905-321-4309

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Five Things Churches Should Say More

Back in October, 2014, I wrote a post entitled "Ten Things Churches Should Stop Saying." I've had more response to that piece than anything else I have written. 

Lately I've been thinking about a different question:  What should churches should say more often


Here are five of them. 

1.  "Why Are We Here?"
Many of us grew up in a world where nobody had to ask why the church existed. It existed because there were so many people who wanted to attend church! Respectable people attended church. Church was the glue that held the community together. It's where our spiritual needs were met. It was an extension of the family. It's where people found belonging. It's where children learned right from wrong.  

No more. Most people don't believe there is any connection between belonging to a church and being a good person. And spirituality has become more of an individual rather than a communal pursuit. 

People are no longer willing to belong to something simply because it's what they've always done. It's not enough to just show up. They need to see it as worthwhile. They want to know it's making a difference. 


For these reasons, churches absolutely need to ask "Why are we here? What difference does it make that we are here? What difference would it make if we weren't here?" We can no longer say "Everybody knows what a church is for." 

Churches need to be intentional about asking "Why are we here?"

2.  "Let's try that." 
Have you ever made a suggestion at a meeting, and someone says "Oh, we tried that in 1974 and it didn't work." And that's the end of it? 

Churches are famously risk averse. The fact is, though, that failure is an essential ingredient in growth. Children would never learn to walk or talk if they weren't willing to fail, over and over again. I recently heard that "FAIL" means "First Attempt In Learning." 

There are two reasons we might avoid experimenting. It will cost money. And people will be upset. 

Experiments don't have to cost a lot. It costs nothing to experiment with a new way of welcoming people. Or to discover what's going on in your neighborhood. Or to tell the story of your church. 

And, if you connect your experiments to your mission and purpose, people might still be upset, but you'll be able to justify your experiment. 

Experiments don't need to be permanent. Even if they fail, you'll have learned something and the church will be better for it.

Churches need to cultivate an experimental mindset -- to try things, evaluate them, learn from them, and if they don't work, try something else. 

3.  "I don't believe I know you." 
A friend of mine told me that, a few years ago, she felt a need to return to church after many years away. One Sunday she went to the local United Church. "The service was nice," she said, "but nobody talked to me." She went back several more Sundays. Nobody talked to her. Her mother-in-law came to visit at Easter time and they went to church together. Nobody talked to them. "So I just never went back." 

Sometimes church people say, "I don't want to introduce myself to someone and have them say 'I've been coming to this church for five years.' I'd be embarrassed." 

We need to get over this fear. It takes a lot of courage for someone to step into a new church where most people know one another. It's better to make a mistake than to have someone come to our church and be ignored. 

Next time you see someone you don't recognize, take the risk of introducing yourself. As Martin Luther famously said, "Sin boldly!"

4.  "Thank You" 
People like to be appreciated. When they do give something, they want to someone to notice. 


It's simple and basic. But many churches are not very good at thanking people. The most they do is send out a generic "Thank you for your contribution" note with the annual income tax receipt. 

Sometimes we avoid saying thank you in case we miss someone. We need to get over that fear. We should spread gratitude as widely as we can, not by avoiding it in case we leave someone out. 

It's not just about acknowledging individuals, though, it's also about creating a culture of gratitude in which we value people for who they are as well as what they do. It's about communicating on an ongoing basis that we are thankful that people are part of the community. 

We should cultivate gratitude as an antidote to the carping, criticizing mindset that can easily take hold. 

Being a Christian means being thankful. We need to say "Thank you" as often and in as many ways as possible. 

5.  "Let's pray about that." 
The church is more than a human organization. It's the Body of Christ. Churches exist because God has called them into existence and sustains them with the Holy Spirit. We are branches connected to the vine. Prayer binds us together, opens us to the Spirit, keeps us connected to the source of our life. 

Churches should not only be communities of planning and action, but communities of prayer. 

And that means more than asking the minister to lead a short devotional at the beginning of the Board meeting. One of the most disempowering things we have done is to remove prayer from the people and hand it over to the "professionals." 

Churches face enormous and, in some cases, agonizing challenges. We do not have the resources to sustain ourselves. We need to rely on prayer -- prayer practiced by as many people, on as many occasions, and in as many different ways as we can imagine. 


Those are five things I can think of that churches should say more often. Can you think of others? 


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Outlier Churches

One mark of the times in which we live is that everybody is in a hurry. Nobody likes to wait. We want things NOW. We get frustrated if we have to wait two weeks to see the doctor – or 10 seconds to download a computer file.

This has had a huge impact on churches. For one thing, people aren’t as committed financially. I was reading about the fundraising challenges of Not-for-Profit organizations, including churches. People today will open their wallets, but they want to see “immediate social impact.” If they don’t see results, they’ll take their money elsewhere. There are fewer and fewer people prepared to build an ongoing financial relationship with an organization and stick with it over years.

People also want immediate experience. It’s not enough just to show up. They expect something to happen when they come. I’ve heard that first time visitors to your church will decide within seconds whether it’s the place for them, based on how it makes them feel. If the church isn’t “doing anything” for them, they’ll be gone.

Studies and polls suggest that this attitude will only become more prevalent. It’s a big challenge, because the Christian life is not only an experience, it’s a way of being meant to be cultivated over a lifetime. It’s about relationships that take time to mature. Church doesn’t lend itself to an adrenaline rush.

Here’s the thing, though, about basing our decisions on statistics of what is true for most people. While it may be true of most people, it’s not true of all people. There are still many people who continue to yearn for what Eugene Peterson (quoting of all people Friedrich Nietzsche) called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

The question is, will we focus mainly on the rule? Or on the exceptions?

Should we emphasize broad experience in order to appeal to as many as possible? Or deep commitment knowing that only a few will respond? The problem with a lot of our churches is that they don’t do either very well. They may tweak things on the surface, but the basic experience stays the same. And they don’t create a lot of long term growth in faith.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but most United Churches simply can’t compete in the marketplace of experience. We don’t have the resources to be that “happening church” that will draw in large crowds of seekers. It’s not in our DNA.

What many of our churches do have is the capacity to develop spiritually mature disciples of Jesus. For my money, we’d be better to focus on what we can do, rather than what we wish we could do.

Let me play with an idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success.
Gladwell looks at really successful people, the ones who rise to the top, who stand out above the crowd. He calls them “outliers.”

Two things are true of most outliers. First, they were born with natural advantages. Most NHL hockey players have birthdays in January, February and March. Why? Well, Gladwell says, from the time they first lace up their skates, they are playing against kids that may be almost a full year younger than they are – a huge advantage for a seven-year-old. They are bigger, stronger, faster. They get picked for the best teams with the best coaches. The gap between them and the kids born in October, November and December grows wider.

Second, they practice more. The rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at something. All the violinists at the Juilliard School of Music are really talented. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there. What separates the very best from the very good is that they practice two hours a day longer than most of their peers. Why were The Beatles better than everybody else? Gladwell argues it was because when they were toiling in the brothels of Hamburg, they were forced to play from early afternoon to late at night every day. Practice really does make perfect.

So let’s draw an analogy to churches. Is it possible that at least some of our churches could become outliers?
Most congregations have built-in advantages. Even the smallest church has at least a core of people who have been deeply formed in Christian faith, who know Jesus, practice prayer, and live out the Gospel in their everyday lives. This wealth of spiritual maturity is a tremendous hidden asset.

The problem is, they’re often out of practice. They haven’t been challenged or given an opportunity to grow into mature leaders who can really shape the character of the church.

So what if at least some of our congregations really focused on building on the assets of faith present among them, and calling forth a commitment to grow and mature over the long haul?

The truth is that there will be fewer of us in the future – fewer congregations and fewer people in those that remain. And maybe not 1 in 100 are prepared to make the kind of commitment that would be required to produce an “Outlier” church.

But Jesus’ parable of the sower reminds us that impact is not always measured by numbers. If we could shift our focus to growing Outlier churches, it could make a difference out of all proportion to our size.